The Death Penalty Is Losing

Article excerpt

AT THIS YEAR'S ANNUAL MEETING OF THE SOCIETY OF Christian Ethics and Society of Jewish Ethics, William Montross of the Southern Center for Human Rights received a long, sustained, and enthusiastic applause-longer than for any plenary address I can remember. This year we met in Atlanta, Georgia, where Montross is a public defender. He gave us a challenge for all spiritual progressives, and for my particular Christian tradition as well.

Racial Injustice

MONTROSS OBSERVED THAT THE "DEATHBELT" STATES (VIRGINIA, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) have executed 90% of the human beings who were legally put to death in the United States in the last twenty years-and these are the states where most lynchings took place. Indeed, "Many say that today's executions are nothing more than yesterday's lynchings."

In Georgia, you are 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for killing a black. Similarly in Oklahoma, Illinois, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Alabama. Since 1976, fifteen whites have been executed for killing a black person in the United States; 283 blacks for killing a white victim. A Stanford University study concluded that the blacker you look the more likely you are to be executed.

Montross testified: "I saw a trial of a black man in Alabama. The whole jury was white men overforty; the jury was chosen in the morning, with no challenges; everyone in the courtroom was white. The prosecution put on its case. The defense attorney made no defense, but just said to the jury, 'ifyou can show this man mercy, you are better men than I am.' He got death."

African Americans comprise 26% of Alabama's population, yet only one of the forty-two elected district attorneys is black, and not one of the judges on Alabama's appellate court is black Of all the states that have the death penalty, 98% of all U.S. chief district attorneys are white, and only 1% are black.

The criminal justice system as a whole is grossly biased against blacks and against the poor. Young blacks have a higher chance of going to prison than to college. In 2002, approximately 791,600 African American men were in prison, and only 603,000 were in higher education. The U.S. makes up 5% of the world's population, but it has 25% of the world's prison population. 48 % of those in prison are black They come out of prison with poor prospects for jobs, or for education. One-third of all African American men in Alabama have lost their right to vote. With the death penalty, once a person is executed, there is no way to correct a wrong sentence. This is a gross violation of the human rights of persons created in the image of God.

Classism

THE GLARING INJUSTICE IS NOT ONLY THE SYSTEMIC racial bias, but also the bias against whoever cannot afford an expensive defense lawyer. Arguing for the death penalty in his book, For Capital Punishment, Walter Berns admits that no one with money has ever gotten the death penally in U.S. history.

Gary Ridgway murdered at least forty-eight women in Seattle. Eric Rudolph detonated a bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta, murdering two and injuring a hundred. Terry Nichols helped Timothy McVeigh kill 168 people by blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was executed but neither Gary, Eric, nor Terry got the death penalty. Why? They were of huge public interest, so they were represented by competent lawyers.

Churches and Synagogues

MONTROSS CHALLENGED us: "I WANT TO REMIND YOU how powerful your voice once was, and to inspire you to find that voice again." The churches led the movement to abolish slavery, the anti-war movements, and the Civil Rights movement "A delegation of rabbis, with members from places as far apart as Memphis and Nova Scotia, who traveled to Birmingham in 1963, [came to] a mass meeting at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church to proclaim their support for the movement. …